Morgenstern, Abendstern,

June 7, 2016 at 10:08 am

A couple of weeks ago, I had the distinct pleasure of playing the violin in an orchestra while a friend of mine sang this beautiful aria from Richard Wagner‘s opera, Tannhäuser. This was a joy to me for three reasons:

  1. The violin part was easy enough for me to play without noticeably screwing up.
  2. My friend’s rich bass-baritone voice was like rich gravy on a perfectly roasted Thanksgiving turkey. (I love to compare music to food, by the way.)
  3. Um, it’s WAGNER!

This famous aria is often used to introduce young musicians (singers and instrumentalists alike) to Wagner. Unlike earlier scene-and-aria operas, Wagner’s arias are difficult to extract from the action of the opera. In an 18th century opera, there are very clear beginnings and ends to pieces; by the mid-19th-century, composer like Wagner blurred those lines, which allowed the action and music to flow seamlessly from one scene to the next. So it’s rare to find a piece like “O du mein holder Abendstern” – a complete aria, with a clear beginning and end, with poetic words that can be taken out of the action and not lose its integrity.

Tannhäuser was one of Wagner’s early operas, but the sound of this aria really captures the essence of his musical legacy – at least, the softer side of it.

When I hear the word “Abendstern” (Evening Star), I can’t help but think of the brightness of its opposite, the “Morgenstern” (Morning Star.)


Maundy Thursday

March 24, 2016 at 10:30 am

One of the most stunning arias in Bach‘s St. Matthew Passion is without a doubt Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben. This aria comes as a quiet interruption of the most intense part of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. The crowd is screaming for Jesus’ crucifixion, and Pilate, fearing a riot, gives them what they demand. In between two shouts of “crucify him”, comes the aria.

Even more stunning is the bizarre orchestration: flute and soprano dance together on two unique melodies, accompanied by two oboes da caccia (predecessor of the modern English horn) – basically a low-pitched oboe. The oboes, I should mention, are by no means low-pitched instruments, nor are they really well adapted at playing the part Bach wrote for them – a funny, pulsing sort of heartbeat.

Heard alone, the aria is so melancholy it hurts. Heard in context, between two loud shouts of “crucify him!”, it is as if Bach was able to pause time to illuminate a glimmer of love in a time of intense hatred.


Poor Frederic

February 29, 2016 at 10:30 am

Alas, poor Frederic’s father had intended his son to become a ship’s pilot, but his hard-of-hearing nanny misheard him, and instead indentured him to be a pirate. And to make matters worse, his contract said he was to be indentured until his 21st birthday, as opposed to his 21st year of life. Normally this would not be a problem, but, you see, Frederic was born on February 29th, and so in his 21st year, he was only a bit over 5 birthdays old …

Throw in a few pirate and policeman choruses, a patter song or two, and corny love story, and you’ve got yourself an opry! (As ridiculous as this plot sounds, it’s fairly normal as operas go.)



The Pirates of Penzance is a comic opera by Gilbert & Sullivan. In this number, the Nanny and Pirate King explain to Frederic the bizarre circumstances that bind him to a life a piracy.

This 1983 movie version of the Pirates of Penzance is like a bang hangover from the 1970s. However, it captures the spirit perfectly, and I can’t deny that I kind of like the electronic orchestra.